Mark Gerzon

Private Facilitator, Mediator, Trainer, Author and Key Organizer of the Congressional Civility Retreats

Topics: leadership, training the trainers, dialogue

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003

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Q: So, Mark, give me, if you would, a brief overview of your work.

A: I wrote a book when I was twenty, about the generation of the sixties, which was about conflict between generations. I studied family therapy, which is a lot about how you intervene in conflicts in families. I started a global newspaper, which was about conflicts. Obviously, since people in journalism are in different parts of the world, this was in the late 70s, and was about how they see conflicts differently and how you can cover it so it's fair reporting. But what's fair reporting? People in New York say fair reporting and people in Moscow say fair reporting, people in Delhi say fair reporting, they all mean different things. So what we were asking is what is fair reporting and we had a team around the world, so that was about conflict. I wrote a book about gender called A Choice of Heroes, which was about conflict between men and women, among other things.

I worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter and producer telling stories about conflict; the whole thing that drives drama is conflict. I also developed something called the Soviet American entertainment summit, where we brought Soviets to the US and Hollywood people to the Soviet Union, so they could tell better stories about each other on the big screen. I put together for the Rockefeller Foundation, a team of social activist from around the world who were putting together projects called Global Partners. This was five years of work, which was a lot about conflict, obviously since these people had different visions.

I wrote a book about mid-life, about the second half of life. It was not about the conflict between young and old, but the conflict in each of us about how it feels to be young and old and be on the trajectory from birth to death. Then I was involved in the nineties on a project called the Common Enterprise, which was all about conflict.

I worked for the Rockefeller Foundation and they would fund liberal things and the conservative foundation would fund conservative things. And I basically made the case to them, who was funding conflict? You know, if you fund the liberal group in the community and they fund the conservative group, you're just funding conflict. You can call it community building, but it's funding conflict. Why not fund a common enterprise where the communities say we want to do this together and then fund the common enterprise of the community? So they bought that idea and I worked on it for four or five years, which took me to all these communities in America that were in conflict.

I saw the patterns of those conflicts, which led to my book A House Divided: Six Belief Systems Struggling for America's Soul, which I can give you a copy of. It is all about conflict and more about worldviews. It is about how worldviews and fundamental values shape how people see their conflict. And that led me to designing the retreats for the US Congress, which is a story we might want to get into. It was fascinating to see in all these communities I worked in, how the Democrats and the Republicans in the House of Representatives were the micro-cause of all those conflicts.

Just because people elected them, you know, they were elected representatives, but they were still all the same conflicts.

So I got to work for a couple of years on the conflicts within the leaders, after having worked on the conflicts in the communities, it was very interesting watching how unsophisticated they were about conflict, and how little they knew about ways of resolving or dealing with it, shocked me. It actually led me back to my more international work. The work with Congress did a lot of work with globalization, bringing people together who were either pro-globalization or anti-globalization. Also, bringing together the world economic forum and the world social forum and the World Bank, IMF, WTO, and having them meet. I did work with the Argentina legislature, which is similar to the US Congress. I did work in Israel and Palestine between Jews and Arabs, and from the Congress work to the World Economic Forum, World Social Forum work, I learned more and more about the fact that the people who were doing this shit, called themselves leaders.

People called them leaders, but I noticed that the quality of leadership wasn't really what I thought the world needed.

Rather, it was leading a part against another part, not bridging the parts, not leading the whole, just leading the part. So you've got the guy who was born Muslim, winds up being the Muslim leader. You've got the guy who was born Christian, ends up being the Christian leader. That's cool, but what about the guy who's going to lead the Muslims and the Christians to live together? That's got to be somebody who's a different kind of leader and we don't even have a language for it, we just have this big word called leader and shit. If the Eskimos have sixteen words for leader, we could at least have a couple of words for leader and we do, we have words like jerk, asshole, saint, genius, we have all these words, but we don't really.

So that's what the book's about, and unlike most leadership books, it's about the conflict of leadership because I see that as a key thing. How does a leader deal with conflict? Do you avoid it? Do you stay among your own? Do you lead us against them, or do you say well who is that them, and how can we bridge that in some way?

So that's sort of what my book's about.

Q: Is there a particular moment in your work in leadership that inspired you? In your research?

A: Now we're on the inspired story? Well the easiest story to tell is the Congress work because I was inspired and disappointed, but if you want inspired I can stress the inspired.

Q: We tolerate ambiguity.

A: Well, I had always been very political and wanted to be involved in politics, but I had a problem getting involved in conflicts because you had to come in either on the Democrat or Republican side. I was usually democratic in orientation, but the way these candidates behaved in their campaigns repulsed me because by the time they were ready to win, they had so trashed the other person. Often they had trashed them in a way that I found pretty ugly, pretty reprehensible, that I didn't really want to work for either side.

So when this committee in the House of Representatives decided to form, it was five Republicans and five Democrats. When they decided to have this retreat, I was excited because here was a political client who was a micro-cause of the whole, five Democrats, five Republicans, and their job was to design a retreat to help the house restore civility, to repair broken working relationships, basically to help the house deal more constructively with conflict. That was an inspiring opportunity for me because I said to myself, my client now isn't a candidate trashing another candidate, it's ten people all who have won their elections.

Five and five who have a common challenge and that common challenge was to design a retreat that would strengthen the whole House of Representatives. The whole House is made up of 435 members and none of them has as a job, making the house a stronger institution. They all have as a job to win and beat the other side. There's nobody with the exception of the Chaplain and the Sergeant of Arms, who actually has the job of taking care of the House. So guess what happens year after year is that the house gets trashed. And that's what was happening. So for me, it was an inspiring experience working with them because I finally had a vantage point, an entry point that was for the whole system, not for part of the system.

Q: How did you get entry into the system?

A: A House Divided. I wrote A House Divided, and I was speaking about it on Capitol Hill. I was invited to speak in front of some of the House members and staff. When the retreat idea surfaced, one of the staffers, he was actually a Republican staff called me and said, "Hey Mark, you should really give these people some advice, they've got this idea of a retreat and they don't really know what they're doing." And he'd felt when he read, House Divided, and heard me speak, that I had an approach that might be useful. So he tipped me off and I wrote a letter that was three pages of questions and I got a call the next day asking, "Can we have lunch?"

Q: How did you structure the process of the retreat?

A: The first thing I did, unlike the other people they interviewed to do this, was I went and listened to them. I said "Why do you need somebody?". Everybody else came in and made their pitch and I didn't. I came in and said, "You have a very talented staff, a very talented group of people, why do you need to hire anybody from the outside?"

Q: Even though you had an opinion?

A: I had my opinion but I said, "Could each of you", there were about eight Congress people sitting at the table, "Take thirty seconds and just say why you're looking for somebody from the outside?" They each spoke for thirty seconds. Then I made my whole pitch based on what they just said. They said it far more eloquently than I. Like one of them, an old Democrat from Texas said, " Well, hell, we're in this fix because we don't know how to fix it, if there were somebody here who knew how to fix it, we wouldn't in the fix for the first place, so we need to go outside otherwise we're just going to repeat what we've just done". He said it with just a really kind of country drawl, just said it.

and then it was very easy for me to say, "Well my approach would be not to build it around an outside facilitation team, but to train a group of you to do the retreat, to work together, to run the retreat yourself. So that when we're all done, you will have been trained and you won't be going back and saying "Well, the facilitators were great or facilitators were lousy", because you will have been the facilitators and you will develop a capacity in the House that will stay in the House floor, there even when we leave."

I was very conscious that I was being hired on the outside for a period of time and my job ended. But their jobs continued, their staff's jobs continued. And they liked that approach.

They also liked the approach that was going to focus on their relationships, not more policy. A lot of people came in with more of a policy seminar. They had had policy seminars until they were absolutely blue in the face. What they needed was some basic experience about how to talk about the things that upset them and made them angry, just like a marriage or a family needs that, the House needed that.

Q: These are people who are used to conflict, they're yelling at each other all day but they're also collaborating. They have these closed-door meetings and they talk. It's a little strange to think that they didn't know anything about relationships, when their whole careers are based on relationships.

A: Well, they know a lot about relationships, but the system they were apart of had undermined relationships to the point that they didn't know how to repair them. So I shouldn't say that they didn't know anything about relationships. I mean, you can't get elected to the house, if you don't know something about relationships. But you got to remember, for their whole life, their whole career, was spent in either a Democrat or a Republican tract, and the whole relationship was about us, building relationships among us or against them. And you spend your whole life that way and your whole campaign that way, and suddenly you're in a place where you say, ok we're all going to work together here in the house.

They even got to the point in America where opposing Congress people would actually come to your district and campaign against you. So, if you got elected, you might actually be working side by side with a man or woman who had come to your district, telling lies about you and trying to get you to lose. And now, one day after you're elected, you're supposed to work like buddies or not buddies, but colleagues. Like, my colleague from New Hampshire and my distinguished colleague from Missouri. And you know what happened was people say today is that the campaign ethos used to stop at the door of the house. Now it's just a continuous campaign, so the campaign ethics pervaded the house floor, and they never got to the point to where they were colleagues. They were just current enemies and former enemies. And so that has a corrosive effect on relationships.

Q: So what happened in the retreat?

A: We designed a process. I had a facilitation team of ten people from the field, for both retreats. There were different teams, but it was me and ten other people. And the ten people were there support what we called the co-leaders, which were the Democratic and Republican co-leaders. So in each room, there was a Democratic and Republican co-leader and then a facilitator helping them in any way they needed to be. To use Bill Ury's terms, almost like a third side for the Democrats and the Republicans. There's a facilitator to be the third side in case the two of them, you know, went crazy. I'd say the most exciting part of it was the small group process.

That's where they actually sat in circles and would answer questions

like, "How does the quality of discourse of the House floor affect you personally?" Sitting in a circle with Democrats and Republicans and their spouses, talking about how it affects you. So you're sitting in a circle and the woman next to you is the wife of a member of the other party says "I couldn't stand watching my kids watch TV and hearing lies about their daddy" You're sitting there, and you realize, yeah, that happens to your people too. And so they discovered their shared pain about the process. They witnessed each other's pain and they developed through that experience the desire to do something about what wasn't working.

And I remember one moment, when one person said, at the end of the session, and I forgot who was, a Democrat or a Republican, and that's the first time that's ever happened. So they really became human beings and that's exactly the process that happens in other settings. Whether it's Israeli and Palestinian, or black and white, or pro-life and pro-choice, that after a while, the clich , the powerful clich disappears and you see the person behind the stereotype. And so that's a general answer to what happens, specifically in terms of output, they develop concrete proposals that they promise to work on after the retreat.

And this gets to the disappointing part, which is that the Monday after the retreat, my job stopped. All the other jobs of any other person related to the retreats stopped and they, members of Congress went back to Capitol Hill and they were back to being Democrats and Republicans. So there was no infrastructure to continue the process.

That was the big weakness of the design, and they repeated that twice. Even though the second time I said "You've got to build it in, you've got to build it into your on-going work." But there was no funding for it, no staff for it, so what happened is that the impact, the powerful impact of the retreat itself, after a period of months was less. There was no way of, despite some attempts to create like a bi-partisan room, there was no money for it, no power for it.

Q: That is a body that has 450, 460 or so members and their staffers. A lot of time these processes happen in environments where there are thousands upon thousands upon millions of people that you're trying to affect. For example, the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, 6 million Jews, I'm not sure how many Palestinians.

Anyway, talk a little bit more about how you design a infrastructure for the re-entry problem. How do you move from individual transformation to either institutional transformation in the case of the house or social transformation as in the case of race relation dialogues or deeply divided society dialogues? You said you came back a second time and said, "let's design something", talk to me about it.

A: Well, in my work, I often witness individual transformation of people's consciousness. But they're apart of an institution that hasn't transformed, so then there is tension between the institution and the individual about what's going to happen. There is the question of whether the individual is going to transform the institution they're apart of or is the institution going to basically eliminate the transformed individual? So there's tension, but a creative tension.

So to me the challenge, if you work from the point of view of individual transformation, is to get enough individuals who are transformed enough that they can have leverage on the institution. In the House, I think the forces that are there that keep the House operating the same way, the partisan forces, were much stronger than the individual transformation. So a number of people have had a powerful individual experience left, and a number of others found ways in their committees to implement it in a small way. Others found ways to implement it in friendships with members of the other party and that had a much more subtle effect.

So I would say the big challenge, is if you don't have the power, than you can't come and change the institution through power. When you do change it, it's through the changing of individual leaders, which had been my approach. That's the big question, how do you get that individual change to lock into the institution in a way that then changes the institution. I think Congress is an example of how that didn't happen, and that's not to say that many Congress people can't tell you wonderfully powerful stories about how it affected this committee or that legislation. Or how something would've been much worse if it hadn't been for this event.

I don't want to say that there were no positive effects. There were a lot of positive effects, but they were informal positive effects

, not institutional effects. I don't see any major institutional changes in the House of Representatives because of those retreats. I think that's a realistic assessment and a natural one because there was never a strategy for institutional change, it was always about improving relationships between the members and that has to be done on an on-going basis. You can't work at the relationships in '97 and then in 9'9 and expect them to affect 2001 or 2003. It's got to be on-going work, as in a marriage or any other relationship.

Q: Were there any surprises during that process for you?

A: A lot of surprises, that's why I'm pausing, really one continuous surprise after another. I guessone of the things I would say that I was impressed with was the fear of emotion.I was impressed by and I was surprised by the of emotional unintelligence. I'd read about emotional intelligence, I was aware of the concept, but I had no idea of how powerful it would be. How people who were so brilliant in terms of their minds and their political strategies could be, yet so emotionally unaware, that was one surprise.

The other surprise was that

I had never personally witnessed the way in which a system, which is malfunctioning, can work into your behavior and that really fine people could behave in ways that were toxic. That was a very important experience for me because it helped me understand how very decent people could be part of a Nazi 3rd Reich, or how very decent people could be apart of a program against the Jews or how very decent people could witness the annihilation of the American Indians or very decent people could be apart of the lynching of blacks. If not actual instigators of it, they could certainly be witnesses to it and party to it and tolerate it and accept it and that they were not evil people. They were apart of systems that were evil. That was a very important learning experience for me.

Q: Wow, so you really saw behavior dictated by the system in which they operated in?

A: If every person who's born, was labeled A or B and the As could put the Bs out of work and the As could distort and malign the Bs and the Bs could lie about them publicly on television. Basically, to overstate it, if the As could destroy the Bs or the Bs could destroy the As, that's a system, that's going to powerfully affect the way that As and Bs think, the way they populate and raise their children, go to school, go to church, synagogue. That's going to affect everything in their lives because an "us and them" has been created that is going to change forever how we see the whole. It is going to change how they see the world, for better or for worse.

You go into the House, there's a Democratic cloakroom and a Republican cloakroom. There's a Democratic side and a Republican side and a Democratic funding structure and a Republican funding structure. I actually had images of the segregation of the south, where it said "White Entrance" and "Black Entrance" except here it was a Democratic entrance and Republican entrance. You start your political life, and what are you, are you a Democrat or a Republican? Basically, you've got to label yourself. You've got to stick with a Democrat or a Republican on the floor. So we're having this interview on the table about the Iraq war, and Democratic and Republican didn't matter so much because Democrat and Republican was trumped by another "us and them", by another A and B, it was trumped by American and Iraqi. And so, suddenly, all these differences, and there were all these guys walking in lockstep.

I'll tell you one other thing, which might be interesting for the data base. I was also surprised by the way that they would unconsciously revert to language having to do with the Holocaust when talking about their opponents. They would talk about the other side using "fascist" tactics or they would talk about them acting like "Gestapo" or they would talk about "storm troopers" or "jack-loppers" or something like that. When they were saying things negative about the other side, they would use terminology left over from WWII. This was happening in 1997, fifty years after WWII. And this made me realize how much the past lives on. They would caricature their opponent in terms of the adversary in the last war and both sides would do that.

Q: Not only the adversary, but the worst evil ever known, right?

A: That was only when they were really angry, mind you, most the time they would use other terms like, jerks. But they would revert to that language when they were really angry and that struck me.

Q: What other lessons did you learn?

A: You want to stay with Congress? You know the system, your know your game plan, I mean our whole interview could be about the congress,

Q: I mean generally speaking I think that a lot of the things that you would say about the Congress would be similar to the things that you might say about your other experiences, if I'm not mistaken, you're talking about two people, two parties who can't communicate and that's mostly what this work is about, unless you think that's not the case.

A: That's probably true. I think there are some universal principles which I write about that in the book. You also know your structure, I mean, I might be like one story per person, I mean there's only one story per person, you're not going to do two stories per person, so,

Q: Unless we're short.

A: I mean I do a lot of international work, so I guess the only thing I'd like to add to this story is that

I was startled by the fact that this quality of relationship was at the heart of one of the most powerful institutions of the most powerful country in the world. It shocked me that when the stakes were so high, that the quality of the relationship could be so low.

I had this notion that when the stakes got high, the relationships got better because the stakes were so high, but I found out that wasn't true. Major, major, multi-billion dollar things and major issues were often shaped by personal animosities and failure to communicate and hostility and revenge from what people had done previous times. An enormous amount of what I witnessed there was about revenge about what they had done the previous time. So you would ask Republicans why they would trash the majority, they would say, "Well when they were in the majority, they did that to us and now we're going to do that to them. Of course, they want to change it now, they want to be civil now, they're in the minority". But it was revenge, "Well, when they ran the House system, they would shortchange us with seats so.."

Q: Hold up nominations in committee?

A: Yeah, so now we're going to do the same thing, it's our turn. And sure, nobody's getting physically hurt, physically annihilate or any of that, but it's the same basic emotional structure that happens in the Holocaust and the genocides. It's now the Tutus chance to get the Hutus, it's the Serbs' chance to get the Bosnians. And then if the tide shifts, its now our turn to get them and the whole system is structured that way. I noticed that everybody's either majority or minority, they don't know how to have partnerships, that's one of the major things I built into the retreat. So that a room was being managed by a Democrat and a Republican working as a pair and the success of the room depended upon the success of the partnership. It's a very different model from, "I'm the majority and you're the minority. I'm the majority chair of this committee and you're the minority".

That's a top-down hierarchial relationship, there's no such thing as a relationship as equals there.

Q: If I came to you and I said, "Mark, I'm going to do another retreat for folks up on the Hill, what advice would you give me?

A: Don't take the job, unless the retreat is seen as an ongoing process. If the retreat is seen as a one time magic tonic, don't take it, because we've tried that already and the next step is to make it apart of an ongoing process.

Q: Anything else?

A: Well, you could say if I took the job, what advice would you give me?

Q: Yeah, let's go there

A: Well,

learn about the symbols and structures that give things power in Capitol Hill and make sure the retreat process, this third side process, this conflict resolution process, has those symbols and those structures and those resources. If you don't have the symbols and the structures and the resources, you'll be overpowered by the people who do. So if they have staff and committee and they have money, and rooms, but you don't have staff or committee or money or rooms you can have an idea about who's time has come, but you're idea has no place to hang its hat, so make sure you have the tangible resources you need.

Q: Let's broaden the scope a little bit. I'm coming into this field of conflict resolution, what advice would you give to someone coming into this field?

A: You've done that question for everybody?

Well my first advice would be don't identify too strongly with the field. The field is a professional category and the more it becomes a professional category the more it needs people to bridge between the field and real life.

Q: What does that mean?

A: That means, if you start to develop your own special language as a conflict resolver, you become less effective. If you start to hang out with people who are conflict resolution specialists, you loose touch with how to talk to policemen and teachers and diplomats and congressman. Don't identify too strongly with the field means you may want a career in the field, but you may want to take what you take in the field and go out and be a congressman and go out and be a city councilman, or go out and be an educator. That's where we need these skills, we don't need these skills in some professional ghetto of people who've been certified in conflict resolution.

We need this in every aspect of life. To see the field as a resource from which you will take a drink to nourish you to go out into all aspects of the community. Don't see it as a destination. For some people it's fine, if you want to be a professor of conflict resolution, but the real energy is at the frontier between the field and the world.

The real energy isn't inside the field.

It's in that frontier and if you're going to go into the field, focus on the frontier, make your home on that frontier

Q: Anything else?

A: Time for a pause, well my personal feeling about this is you have everything you need, but you may have some other categories you want to go over.

Q: Meta-comments about the field, reflections? That's a really insightful point about the frontier. People like to talk about mainstream. I've often thought of it as making the conflict resolution language into mainstream media, not making a special language you only find in the field, but making a general language that everyone uses which I think has started. When you hear about mediation, you hear about dialogues, ADR, etc.

A: Do you know what ADR stands for?

Q: No.

A: Alternative Dispute Resolution. I agree on the others, but not on ADR, that's still very specialized. That's a part of that language. Well, a general comment I'll make, to make me very popular with Heidi and Guy. It's actually kind of a continuation on that last comment about the frontier, the whole field's is too academic. It needs to find more ways to popularize itself, and in that sense it has to overcome it's roots. And its roots are academia and law. And so it's strong in its base, which is academia and law, and it's very weak in other parts.

It's very weak for example in including the arts, in including the humanities, in including the language of religion or spirit. And it really needs to strengthen its presence in those fields. It needs to broaden its base and simplify its language and it also has to learn to be as much about the heart and the soul as the mind. Right now it's a very mental field, it's all about using logic and rationality to resolve disputes, as if it's all a question of technique and mind. One wonderful thing about this database, is that its starting to address things like emotion, stereotype, and even to a certain extent the brain and physiology. I guess to some extent it has to be as much about the heart and the soul, as the body, which is about the mind. And I guess that's about all I have to say.

Q: Give me twp minutes on how you would like to do new kinds of leadership in various sectors.

A: Well, I do, professionally. I do leadership trainings and I've done them with city managers to congress people to corporate teams to community leaders to foundations.

What I notice is that people who have taken leadership positions and have never had one moment of training on how to deal with differences, not even conflict resolution, how to deal effectively with differences, they've never been trained. They've been trained in all kinds of things but never in how to deal with differences. So whether it's a corporation trying to resolve disputes between their sales force and their engineers or a community in the Middle East trying to resolve conflicts between Arabs and Jews, people in leadership areas have had no experience with that and that's the big shift that I'd like to see.

I'd like to see in any leadership program and every career path that creates leadership, whether it's University leadership or leadership in the bank or leadership in the city council or leadership in a corporation or leadership in the army, there should be conflict resolution training and I would often call it something else. I would call it dealing with differences or "bridging differences" or something. There's lots of different languages, just so that it boils down to how do you deal with differences and that's the main thing I'd say about leadership

Q: Are there any leaders who come to mind who have achieved those qualities?

A: Well the three leaders that are in my research, who are most often mentioned around the world as being inspiring leaders are King, Mandela, and Gandhi.

And if you look at King, Mandela and Gandhi, they had certain qualities in common which was that all of them identified with the whole. All of them opposed the adversary without demonizing the adversary, and that was one of the reasons why they were so effective. They didn't achieve what they achieved by making an adversary less than human. They had been made less than human by the adversary, but they did not respond by making the adversary less than them. And that's the spiritual aspect. When I go back to saying that it's as much about the heart and the soul as the mind, when you look at Mandela, King, and Gandhi, they were profoundly spiritual people. When they explain the source of their effectiveness, they will refer to deeply spiritual and psychological sources.

So that is one of my concerns for the field is that when it gets really academic and it never mentions spirit, soul and it almost never mentions religion. It's a real gap and it's almost because of the academic bias of the field.

And I'll say one more thing and that is that there is a fundamental paradox in this project that you're involved in and that is that this country which has just violated all norms of decency and how to handle conflict in the world, is also the home base for a lot of the pioneering work in conflict resolution. So it's a paradox that the field needs to face. Particularly in America, that it's based in a country that has just said to the world that we don't care what the security council says, we don't care what the norms of international conduct are, we will do what we think is right, regardless of what anybody else thinks. Regardless of the UN, regardless of global public opinion, and before long, this field will have to reckon with these geo-political boundaries.

Q: Yeah, well, I think that falls into a long-standing pattern of paradoxes.